by Alexandra Kathryn Mosca 

  "Santa Evita!" the massive crowd assembled outside the Casa Rosada, wailed plaintively. Sobs and shrieks of anguish pierced the inky blackness of the August night, winter in Argentina. The crowd kept a vigil, refusing at first, to believe that their beloved Evita, the first lady of their land, could be gone from them forever at the age of 33. To the descamisados (an endearing term for Argentina's poor) Evita Peron, the woman from humble beginnings, much like their own, was thought to be saint-like. But to the oligarchs, Argentina's elite; the people she had taken every opportunity to displace in the name of, as she put it, "redistributing the nation's wealth", she was more like Satan incarnate. In reality, she was one of the most complex, paradoxical and enigmatic woman in history, who, more than most, embodied a litany of extreme opposites - earthy/ ethereal -sacred/profane -good/evil -puritanical/ promiscuous.

  Fueled by a fervent desire "to be someone", a yearning stoked by a childhood of poverty and shame, she hungered for the respect and acceptance denied her as a child of illegitimacy when such a stigma held grave societal consequences. In fact, so deep was the wound, that in an official act, Eva Peron removed the notation of "illegitimate", which had until then been scrawled across one's birth certificate like the proverbial scarlet letter.

  Unlike so many others, she achieved her dreams of greatness. Improbable as it seems, while working as a mediocre actress, Eva Duarte met and married General Juan Peron, the future president of Argentina. As the wife of Argentina's president, she was afforded great respect and wielded much power, a perfect position from which to avenge the many deprivations, slights and humiliations she had suffered at the very same hands of the people she now ruled. 

  Often, it is difficult to reconcile the disparate Evita's which seemed to inhabit her being. Her complicity in offering asylum to the heinous Nazi's, a commiseration born more out of greed than a shared ideology, contrasted dramatically with the unabashed tenderness and utter lack of concern for her own health, when allowing a leper or tubercular to kiss her face, or when comforting a sick or orphaned child.  

  Her supporters stand firm that Evita used her power for the good of the country and did many things to improve life in Argentina. Elevating the status of the poor and down-trodden and gaining the vote for women. Her charitable foundation granted favors for the needy and built many hospitals. Yet, as she championed these very human causes, her detractors point out that she simultaneously helped herself to vast sums of money and precious gems; obviously not having a conflict of conscience and ambition. Still, she was an object of fascination the  world over and, many believe, the driving power behind General Juan Peron. Her ambitions were as grand as her bejeweled and bedecked presence. She envisioned one day being VP on her husbands presidential ticket. A position that would enable her to further her many visions for her beloved country and satisfy her fever for power. But that was never to be. Cancer became her most persistent and fearsome enemy. One, in all her formidity, she could neither control nor conquer, as she had all so many other obstacles in her life, by sheer will and determination. At last, she had come up against something she had no power over; something which would ultimately take her life.

  Always physically fragile, the first signs of illness were evident on January 9, 1950 when she fainted at an official function. Three days later, during an appendectomy, a doctor diagnosed uterine can, ironically the very disease that had taken the life of Peron's first wife. At first declining further surgery, she continued her grueling schedule, refusing to cut back on her duties, as if she considered herself invincible. Dr. Jorge Albertelli, her personal physician, gave her radiation and moved into the couple's residence, where he lived until her death. Dr. George Pack, an eminent cancer surgeon from Memorial Sloan Cancer Center in New York City, was summoned to be part of her medical team and in November he performed a hysterectomy. A procedure which bought her some time and for which he accepted no fee.

  On November 11, 1951 a gravely ill, bedridden Evita voted by her bedside, the electoral ballot box brought to her. An auspicious day for both Eva and the country, as it was the first time in Argentine history that women participated in an election. The cause Evita had championed so ardently had indeed become law.

  Her health rebounded at Christmas, enabling her to resume her cherished duties of distributing millions of gifts to needy children. But the rebound was brief and her suffering returned, excruciatingly so, causing her, ever the pragmatist, to try to bargain with God in a way that was pure Evita. "If you'd give me back my health, I will never wear jewels or beautiful dresses again. Nothing but a skirt and a blouse." But she knew her time was short and made use of that time by completing her autobiography and supervising the plans for what she thought would be her permanent monument, while Juan Peron made plans for her funeral. Masses were said and prayer vigils held around the country; health updates appeared daily in the Argentine newspapers.

  Evita's last public appearance was at her husband's second inauguration on June 4, 1952. She weighed 82 lbs., and was pumped up with morphine and propped up by a plaster support concealed by her fur coat. Seven weeks later, on July 26th, she was dead. Her last words were to her sister Elisa, "Eva se va." (Eva is leaving) The time of her death was listed as 8:25 P.M., a more fanciful than actual hour, given that it was the time of her marriage. Nevertheless, 8:25 became the official time and beginning July 26th, until the fall of Peron's regime, the news was interrupted each evening to remind the country, "It is 8:25 P.M,, the time when Eva Peron entered immortality."

  Evita's death and the subsequent preparations were as dramatic and grandiose as her life had been. A  period of national mourning was decreed for one month. All Peronists were ordered to wear a black tie or armband, accepted signs of mourning. Flags were at half-mast and draped in black as were lamp-posts in every city, town and village. Tributes poured in from world dignitaries, including President Truman and Britain's Queen Elizabeth. Business virtually shut down for three days in all of Argentina; Buenos Aires, the capital city, closed down completely. Only florists remained open.

  While the country mourned publicly, behind the closed doors of the Casa Rosada, Dr. Pedro Ara, a distinguished Spanish pathologist, working as an embalmer, began his extensive preparation of Eva's body. This was no ordinary embalming process. Dr. Ara had spent much of his life perfecting a process to preserve corpses for an indefinite period of time. This procedure entailed replacing blood with absolute alcohol, then replacing the alcohol with glycerine that had been heated to 140 degrees. The alcohol would draw the water from the tissues and the glycerine would replace the water, filling out the body to its lifelike state. This process was thought to preserve even the internal organs. Interestingly, Dr Ara's technique required only two incisions, one in the neck and the other at the heel. A process so precise and contained, it was unnecessary to even remove her undergarments. Dr. Ara, along with an assistant worked through the night, in the morning declaring his work "definitely incorruptible".

  With the embalming complete, it was time for the finishing touches. This, her last public appearance, was as carefully planned as any of her previous personal appearances had been.  Her dressmaker, like Dr. Ara, had also worked through the night, fashioning an ivory-colored tunic for her to wear. Her personal hairdresser, who had styled her hair daily for her entire adult life, applied a fresh wash of color, then fashioned her hair into her trademark chignon for the last time. Next came her manicurist, who removed the crimson polish Eva usually wore and replaced it with a pale color, as Eva had instructed shortly before her death.    With the aesthetic preparation at an end, the undertakers brought in the casket that had been kept ready. Constructed at a cost of $30,000 by the Lynch Metalworking firm of Connecticut, the casket was made of Bronze with an inch thick crystal cover, similar to one the company had produced for Mother Cabrini. The rosary beads of silver and mother-of-pearl, given to her by Pope Pius XII, were entwined in her hands and she was draped by Argentina's blue and white flag. Then the casket was soldered shut and taken to the Ministry of Labour building, where Evita would lie in state, following a Mass celebrated by the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Monsignor Manuel Tato and Eva's personal priest, Father Hernan Benitez.

  The military acted as honor guards as hysteria gripped the entire country. For thirteen days, during which time the rain never ceased, Evita's body lay on view. Three million Argentines waited in line 15 hours to file past her casket, at a rate of nearly 65,000 a day, for one last look at "La Senora", as she was reverently referred. Some stopped to kiss the glass cover, many would faint and many more would weep uncontrollably. At intervals, workers had to remove the glass cover to clean inside, despite the air that constantly circulated throughout the casket, in order to prevent the glass from fogging. Nurses stood by to attend the 3,900 who required medical attention, still sixteen died in the crush of people, several from heart attacks. Thousands of torches burned throughout the land, extinguished each night at 8:25. The smell from the thousands of flowers, piled 20 feet high up the walls of the ministry of labour building permeated the streets.

  On Saturday, August 9th, Eva's casket was placed atop a special gun carriage, and taken to the Congress building for an additional day of public viewing. The next day, Sunday, after a funeral Mass and many eulogies, the flag-draped casket was again placed on the gun carriage. A military band played Chopin's funeral march as 39 white-shirted, trade-union officials led the vehicle down Rivadavia Street between an honor guard and the two million Argentine's who lined the streets. President Juan Peron, his Cabinet and Eva's family followed. As the cortege passed street after street, flowers were thrown from balconies and windows, while squadrons of Air Force planes flew overhead. Three hours later, they reached the CGT building, which would be Eva's temporary resting place, while  her permanent monument was being built. Her body was taken to Dr. Ara's third floor laboratory, so that in the meantime he might continue the preservation of her remains. A procedure he kept mum about, but said to be an ancient method of "Spanish mummification" in which preservatives are distributed throughout the entire circulatory system, all the way to the capillaries. In addition, certain areas of the body were filled with wax and then the whole body was covered with a layer of wax. His ministration's, which took an entire year, were complete in July of 1953; however the mausoleum was not, so Eva's body remained, perfectly preserved, at the GCT building. Eva's mother and three sisters came regularly, and from time to time a designated few were allowed to see her. And all the while, the building remained covered by flowers.

   The myth of Saint Evita remained so strong than more than 100,000 requests to canonize her poured into the Vatican. Requests that were denied.

   On September 16th of 1955, Juan Peron's regime was overthrown. The new regime, afraid Evita's body, which was still housed in the Ministry of Labour building, would become a shrine for the Peronists, had it removed. The body was stashed in various implausible places, including a truck parked on the street, before making the rounds of various military structures.

   With no body now visible to inspire the devotion of the Peronists, the new regime set about to erase the memory of the Perons. Soon, every item with the 'Eva Peron Foundation' inscription on it was ordered burned. And while the Press was forbidden to utter Peron or Evita's name, the poorest ranchero had a personal shrine in his home to Evita. In lieu of a grave in which to pay their respects, the faithful worshiped their beloved mythical mother at a bust of Evita, which they regularly covered with flowers. The revolution replaced this with a trash can. Undeterred, the flowers were then simply placed on the can. It seemed that although the new regime tried so thoroughly to obliterate Evita from the collective hearts and minds of Argentina, her being proved to be immutable.

   In the meantime, the exiled Juan Peron had, shortly after being granted political asylum in Spain, met and married a Panamanian dancer, named Isabela Estela. In a cruelly ironic twist of fate, Isabel was, after the death of Peron, to live Evita's unrealized dream of running the country.

  While back in Argentina, Peronists loyal to Evita's memory became increasingly vocal with their demands to know the whereabouts of her remains. All they received by way of answers was silence. It was in fact, encased in a wooden box inside a warehouse at military intelligence headquarters. After a year, "Operation Europe" was implemented, which necessitated secret negotiations with Pope Pius XII to ensure a safe burial place for Evita. In 1957, it was agreed that she would be buried in Milan's Musocco Cemetery under the assumed name of Maria Maggi. And it was there she remained for 14 years until July of 1971. Following a bloody, civil unrest in Argentina, it was believed that the symbolism of her remains would restore calm, called for the return of her body to General Peron. An Argentine General, agreed to set in motion the transfer of her remains to Spain. And on September 22nd, he made good on that promise when a van, containing the casketed remains of Eva Peron drove up to the Peron villa in the Puerta de Hierro suburb of Madrid. Dr. Ara, also living in Madrid, was summoned. Upon opening the casket, he discovered just how well his work had held up; any damage was superficial and easily repaired. Isabel combed and restyled her long, blond hair and she was dressed in a new outfit, before being placed in a makeshift chapel in the attic.

  A year later, Juan Peron returned to Argentina along with Isabel to resume power; Eva's body was left behind in Spain. Peron's new reign was short, he died in July of 1974 and in November of that year Isabel sent an ambassador to bring  Eva's body home at last to Argentina. For a brief time her body was displayed alongside the closed casket of Juan Peron, in the chapel of the Olivos residence.

    Then in 1976 came the coup. Isabel Peron was ousted, and the newly elected President of Argentina, certainly not wanting to share his residence with two corpses, allowed them to be buried. On October 22, 1976 Eva Peron was entombed, without fanfare, inside the Duarte family mausoleum in the Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires eminent cemetery. Her gravesite, on which a plaque is inscribed with the words, "Don't Cry For Me" in Spanish, is positioned among the most famous names in Argentina's history, including thirteen Presidents and continues to be a prominent tourist attraction. It is a peculiar irony that her body now lies eternally surrounded by Argentina's oligarchs, the very people she so hated in life.

  The myth of Evita persists until today, almost fifty years after her death. Kept alive by a spate of books, a play, a movie, a song and by an enduring interest in this passionate woman who lived a short life of stunning contradictions and loomed larger than life. The world's attention she had captured during her lifetime, now eclipsed only by the iconic status she has realized since her death.


Copyright (c) 2001 by Kates-Boylston Publications, Inc.